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High Wire

The Difference Between Being Happy and Being High

Breaking down how we decide which kinds of pleasure are acceptable and which ones are not OK.
This guy is definitely one or the other. Photo via Getty Images/razyph

Many people think of drug use, or other potentially addictive experiences like gambling, as more profane than sacred. Chemical or virtual highs, a lot of us believe, are cheap substitutes for genuine happiness at best—and a delusional trap that can destroy lives at worst. But learning to think clearly about the differences between "happy" and "high" can offer important insight both into how society manages drug use and how people find meaning in their lives.


Consider two wildly divergent characters: a monk or hermit who takes a vow of poverty and spends years in silent meditation, and a homeless person who begs to support a crack habit while doing no harm to others in pursuit of that high. Or, if you think the fact that crack use supports violent gangsters in cocaine-producing countries makes those two excessively different, we can substitute a compulsive gamer living in his parents' basement instead.

The first guy a lot of us might see as holy and dedicated to a meaningful life; the second two we're more likely to regard as sick, or even worthless. None of them, however, are raising children or doing productive economic or artistic work during the hours upon hours that they engage in their obsessions—and all are, in their very different ways, searching for relief from life's stresses.

"It's like the difference between being in mutual love and fantasizing that you're in love." —Alva Noe

On the surface this will seem to some like an absurd or even outlandish comparison. And I am not suggesting by any means that crack or video-game addictions are good or that meditation is bad. But if society doesn't ask why we value one apparently selfish pursuit and reject another, we can't understand the contradictions at the heart of the way governments regulate and prohibit some pleasures, but not others.

Even for those who are not at all religious, values matter, and they structure the way we think about which types of pleasure are acceptable and which are not.


"'Pure pleasure' (as from a drug) and 'meaningful happiness' really are conceptually separable," Brian Earp, a research associate with the Oxford University Center for Neuroethics in the United Kingdom, tells VICE. He adds that a large literature in psychology suggests "meaningfulness is an important part of overall well-being and a life well-lived, even if it sometimes comes at the expense of sheer positive affect."

This is why to most people it's intuitively obvious that the joy we experience at the birth of a child is inherently superior to the pleasure of something like doing heroin—even if many of the exact same neurochemicals, like oxytocin, dopamine and opioids, are involved in both experiences

It's also why people who live in difficult circumstances and help others endure extremely traumatic events can be happier than those whose lives—on the surface at least—are much more comfortable. Meaning and genuine accomplishment matter deeply in creating lasting happiness.

"It's like the difference between being in mutual love and fantasizing that you're in love," says Alva Noe, professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley.

But users of one class of substances—the psychedelics like LSD, mescaline, ayahuasca and psilocybin ("shrooms")— describe their experiences as being meaningful in ways that are quite different from how we typically talk about alcohol and other drugs. In fact, 94 percent of participants in one experiment with psilocybin mushrooms said that their trip was one of the top five most meaningful events in their lives; more than a third said it was number one.


How can a chemical that causes hallucinations produce an experience that many describe as being more important or memorable than reality? And why would one class of drugs lead to such experiences, while the joys linked with others are seen as fake or fraudulent?

One answer could be simple pharmacology: the brain chemicals that psychedelics interact with are those involved in constructing our sense of what's real and what isn't; mess with them, and experience will obviously feel more or less real for simple neurological reasons.

But Noe says that differences between genuine joy and artificial escape shouldn't be framed only in terms of authenticity or pharmacology. Instead, he argues that the critical differences between them have to do with whether they make you more open to the world and more integrated as a person—or shut you down and leave you fractured.

Psychedelic experiences, notoriously, can go either way—tales of bad trips are a dime a dozen. But typically (and this is why there is a renaissance in research on them) even after a terrifying or apparently self-dissolving experience, many people find that these drugs have taught them something important. The fact that the teacher here is chemical is less important than the fact that growth and learning occur.

"A lot of the intuitions we have about drugs are completely irrational and wrong." —Carl Elliott

Indeed, Noe argues we shouldn't let meditators off the hook simply because they believe their pursuit is praiseworthy. He describes one who was said to be so calm that a gunshot could go off and he wouldn't flinch. "I thought, 'And that's supposed to be good?'" Noe recalls. "To be disconnected from reality in that way? I'm not sure that it's really true, but if it were, is it really an admirable thing?"


If we look at whether pleasures allow us to grow and connect—or if they simply take us out of ourselves—we're better equipped to understand their value. Certainly, no one can be always "on," and simply zoning out on something isn't always wrong. But psychedelics are different from other drugs in that they frequently make us face aspects of ourselves we might prefer to ignore. This could be one reason they are rarely addictive: the more habit-forming drugs like heroin, coke and alcohol all tend to allow the user to escape from unwanted thoughts and emotions. Psychedelics, instead, tend to concentrate people on them.

The fact that such highly varied substances are often seen as the same when it comes to public policy—and pop culture—obscures these issues. "A lot of the intuitions we have about drugs are completely irrational and wrong," says Carl Elliott, a professor at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Minnesota.

Indeed, another aspect of how we value pleasures and whether we tolerate self-indulgence relates to the amount of effort it takes to achieve them. Climbing Mount Everest is about as likely to kill you and leave your family bereft as shooting heroin is—but we see the mountain climber as heroic because what she does is hard, unlike drug use.

"One reason why people tend to see effort as being important is that it shows something about the character of the person engaging in the activity," Earp explains. "If you are the sort of person who is willing to put in the time and energy to attain a meaningful experience—as opposed to just going for a quick high—this probably reflects a sort of stability and steadfastness."


Of course, obsessively pursuing a high also requires focus and effort—but it doesn't tend to mark you as a person who, as Earp puts it, values "not just efficiency, but engagement—a real grappling with the nuance of a situation, which can provide different kinds of, and perhaps higher-quality, insights, than those that can typically be gotten 'on the cheap.'"

Americans have probably also tended to be skeptical of unearned pleasure for spiritual reasons—the Puritan in them can't value it without attendant effort or worthiness. And if blessings are arbitrary rather than earned, and feelings are just chemicals moving about in the brain, it's easy to start questioning whether anything matters.

Drugs make people uncomfortable because they raise all these issues: How much self control do we have, really? How can we be more than just our physical bodies if chemicals can change our minds so profoundly?

For over a century now, policymakers in the United States and abroad have ignored these questions when regulating drugs, choosing simply to demonize some while celebrating others. But if we want a better 21st century drug policy, we need to grapple with what drug experience means and not simply assume that a drug is a drug is a drug—and that being high is always worthless and inevitably leads to unhappiness in the end.

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